So, what makes What Makes This Book So Great so great? (Ask me if I’ve been waiting to write that line.) Well, first, let’s get clear exactly what it is: it’s a collection of blog posts that Jo Walton wrote for Tor.com, and the subtitle is Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Essentially, this book is what this blog is, and what many of my favorite book blogs are: it’s someone who’s a Constant Reader (and I do mean Constant, more on that in a bit), telling other readers about some of the books she has loved for years and goes back to all the time and wants everyone to have the chance to read. It’s appreciation, in the best sense: not blind to faults or to how time may have changed our reading of these books, but enthusiastic about the wonderful ideas and writing and characters they offer, and can offer again and again to a re-reader.
It took me a little while to get into the rhythm of the book. These are blog posts, not essays, so each piece is short — about three pages long. Walton usually gives a plot summary (though she tries to avoid major spoilers in most cases), and then gets into what, to her, is obviously the fun part: discussion of What Makes This Book So Great. Again, this is appreciation, not criticism — in some cases, Walton is all but gushing over the interesting way an author solves a problem, or re-thinks time travel, or has such compelling characters that you don’t notice that the time travel is basically pointless, or whatever. This makes her chapters incredible fun to read, whether or not you’ve read the book in question, whether or not you even have any interest in reading the book. It makes her feel like a friend who has your best interest at heart, someone who’s searching her shelves for the right book for you, something you’re really going to like.
And I liked a lot of them! Science fiction and fantasy aren’t my primary genres, but I read a reasonable dose of them from time to time, and I was pleased to see I’d read about 10% of the books she recommends. I wanted to read at least ten or fifteen more, too, which is a good proportion these days. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and she has the gift of making everything sound interesting.
The bulk of the book is about science fiction. There were certainly pieces about fantasy, but far fewer. There were also two cases where Walton did appreciations of every book in a series, and that was just too many. If you’d already read and enjoyed the series, you might have been nodding along in grinning agreement, but if (like me) you hadn’t, you’d got the sense of what the series would be like by the first book, and didn’t want to read about all of them. Still, there are 130 (!) entries here, so it didn’t really matter; I could skip dozens and there would be dozens more for me to choose from.
Sprinkled here and there among the book-appreciation are a few think-pieces that were interesting and useful (“Do you skim?” “The Suck Fairy” “Literary criticism vs talking about books”.) One of the most interesting, to me, was the piece on reading as feast or famine. Jo Walton says she’s always seen books as a scarcity, as if there will never be enough. This is partly because she’s an extremely fast reader and partly because she’s rather… selective. She claims she could read through an entire local library in a couple of months, considering how many of the books she’s already read, how many genres she doesn’t like, and how many authors she doesn’t enjoy. Re-reading, then, is crucial; she’s read certain books so often that she’s memorized them and can’t really read them any more. This is completely foreign to me. I’m a reasonably fast reader, too, but the idea of ever getting through everything I want to read, even in a modestly-proposed lifetime, is nonsense. Reading is feast; re-reading is luxury, is completeness that I scarcely have time to wallow in.
I also liked the piece on science fiction/ fantasy reading protocols. Walton makes the argument that people who regularly read SF understand how to gather information, pick up clues from worldbuilding, identify what is important and what isn’t. People who don’t regularly read this genre often miss these sorts of protocols, and then, if they make a foray into writing that genre, they create annoying SF, with awkward information-dumps where they don’t belong. Since I’ve seen this happen, it was nice to have the phenomenon named!
I got the recommendation for this book from Jeanne, and all I can say is that I wish there were a whole series of these books out, by all sorts of authors. Collections! Anthologies! I want to know what books everyone thinks are So Great, and why. Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood, Nick Harkaway, Marilynne Robinson, Neil Gaiman, Dorothy Sayers, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov. Everyone. Sock it to me, baby, hit me one more time.